Wisdom in Ancient and Contemporary Naturalism

Karl E. Peters

Paper for
“Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization”
Claremont, CA June 4-7, 2015

Section VII. Reimagining and Reinventing the Wisdom Traditions—B
Track 5. Thinking Independently in the Tradition of Classical Greece

We are approaching environmental and human catastrophe. We are in the midst of a transformation of our planet as a whole, of air, water and land, of ecosystems and species habitats. This will continue the increasing rate of species extinction even though some new species will be created. There will be a substantial reduction of the human population accompanied by much suffering.
Our task at this conference is a creative one—how can we help transform human beings to minimize suffering and move toward a new and more ecological civilization? In Section VII, Track 5 we are exploring how we might rethink some aspects of the classical traditions stemming from ancient Greece.
In this paper, I will couple together a Greek tradition that is often ignored—the materialistic, atomistic Epicurean understanding of reality and ethics—with some contemporary science and the naturalistic theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. In moving toward an ecological civilization we can be helped by a naturalistic world view that uses the findings of science and embodies a general process perspective to counter our current “consumerist world view” that is also naturalistic.

Ancient naturalism

In January 1417, most likely in the library of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda, Germany (northeast of Frankfurt), Italian book hunter Poggio Bracciolini made the discovery of a lifetime. It was a manuscript of a book written almost 1500 years earlier—De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Titus Lucretius Carus (Greenblatt 2011, 44-50). According to Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt, this poetic, philosophical work was a key factor in enabling the Renaissance and reintroducing an empirically based, naturalistic view of the universe, which contributed to the rise to modern science.
In his own time, around 50 B.C.E., Lucretius voiced in poetic form the essential teachings of the earlier Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus. With Poggio’s fifteenth century discovery, a second, usually overlooked, wisdom tradition was revived as an alternative to the dominant Western religious tradition stemming from Plato and Aristotle.
Plato, Aristotle and many of their successors understood the created universe as an embodiment of universal ideal types—Platonic ideas or eternal objects. A significant aspect of causality understood in terms of these universal types are the formal and final causes of creation. Theologians saw these types as residing in the mind of a personal God who created the world.
In contrast, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius saw the ultimate origin of the universe to be atoms in motion. Atoms occasionally swerved from their natural downward paths through empty space (the void) so that they collided with each other. As they collided, they produced conglomerate entities composed of atoms, that in turn collided with other atoms and conglomerates of atoms to build the world as we know it. Everything came into being over time by chance collisions of atoms that stuck together and then uncoupled only to become new conglomerates. Other than an infinite variety of the atoms, which themselves did not change, everything was in process and was relational. Lucretius told this story in a poem and thus a “scientific vision of the world—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder” (Greenblatt 2011, 8).
This view of the universe was complemented with an epistemology based on sense experience and with an ethics based on the experiences of pleasure and pain. Rather that supporting extravagant and wasteful attempts to gain ever more pleasure, which only leads to pain, the goal was to avoid pain and experience a calm, joyous sense of well being. At the beginning of Book II Lucretius gives us the heart of Epicurean ethics by contrasting a lifestyle of “getting to the top” with one of simplicity:
. . .nothing is sweeter than to dwell in peace
high in the well-walled temples of the wise,
whence looking down we may see other men wavering, wandering, seeking a way of life,
with wit against wit, line against noble line, contending, striving, straining night and day,
to rise to the top of the heap, High Lord of Things.
O wretched minds of men, O poor blind hearts! How great the perils, how dark the night of life
where our brief hour is spent! Oh, not to see
that nature demands no favor but that pain
be sundered from the flesh, that in the mind
be a sense of joy, unmixed with care and fear!
Now for our physical life, we see that little—
so little!—is needed to remove our pain.
For Nature does not ask that vast delights of a more tickling kind be spread before us,
even if through the house there are no statues
of golden boys with flaming lamps in hand
to furnish light for banquets all night long,
and there’s no silver to glitter nor gold to gleam,
no lyre to echo from coffered, gilded ceiling.
Why! Men can lie on soft turf side by side
under a tall tree’s branches near a stream,
and easily, pleasantly, care for creature needs—
especially when the sun shines, and the year in season sprinkles the fresh green grass with flowers. (Lucretius 2011, 29) .
Although this may seem naive, because pain from an accident or disease is hard to avoid, the idea of the joy of living simply can be part of the wisdom of an ecological civilization


Henry Nelson Wieman has argued that the only world we know is that which is relative to our human mind. This is another way of saying that our world views—which include our understandings of the way things are, how we acquire knowledge, what we value, and how we should behave—are humanly constructed. The worldview of the Greek atomists was a human construction, as was the world view of Plato and Aristotle. Modern science is a human construction. Also a construction is our contemporary cultural consumerist worldview that equates happiness with material well being, that regards our planet as a resource for our use and enjoyment, and that measures progress materialistically by gross domestic product (GDP).
In keeping with the goal of this conference, I suggest that we need to construct a naturalistic world view that embodies a process perspective and uses the findings of science to counter our current consumerist world view—which also is naturalistic.
In an overall process perspective, everything is constituted out of relationships and everything is always becoming. In terms of modern science everything is evolving in relationship with other evolving processes or events. A Universe Story is being constructed by many scientifically informed people: the entire universe is evolving so that new systems emerge our of older simpler systems. Human beings have emerged as complex, relational, ever becoming biological-cultural systems. (See Appendix.)


Humans are ambivalent creatures. We have evolved to be both individually self-protective and also to desire relationships with others. Like the reptiles, we have individually self protective and species continuing instincts,sometimes called the “four f’s”—“fight, flee, freeze, feed and f. . . “ (I’ve added a fifth—freeze). Like other mammals we have emotions that are also protective—fear, jealousy, and anger. Also, like some mammals, we have pro-social emotions that relate us to others in what some call the “social brain network”—empathy, love, and friendship (Shoemaker, 2012, Johnson et al. 2005).
However, not all humans are alike. There is individual variability in our brains—in the networks that are self protective and pro-social. Variations in certain genes can contribute to neurochemical brain development that makes some humans more aggressive and un-caring of others. The environment in which a child is raised also contributes to neural development. Studies have shown that children raised in a continuing, highly stressful environment with poor parental nurturing have difficulty interrelating positively with others. Some may grow up to look out only for themselves and manipulate others. They show little empathy. Yet they can be charismatically attractive and sometimes they can be chosen as leaders.
Because of genetic and brain variation, as well as upbringing, some can be called psychopaths—people “without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves” (Babiak and Hare 2009, 19). Or “almost psychopaths” (Shouten and Sliver 2012). Estimates vary about of how many there are in the wider population, but my reading suggests that one to four people in a hundred people (1% to 4%) that we meet in our daily lives are psychopaths or almost psychopaths. So are 15% of those on Wall Street, and 25% of those in prison. The fact that so many leaders in society are primarily oriented only toward their own success, often manipulating and dominating others, is an obstacle to developing a mutually relational ecological society of people concerned for the good of the whole.
Their is another obstacle that each of us face—emotional attachment to what we already have that leads to obsessively trying to preserve what has already being created, starting with our own existence. At a basic psychological level Epicurus and Lucretius saw this as the fear of death. They argued that if humans were to accept that this life is all there is, they would no longer fear death and would indeed be happier. They could be content with what they already have, with few material goods, but with the joys of experiencing the beauty of the natural world and of friendship. Henry Nelson Wieman’s distinction between created and creative good helps us expand this and apply it today. Created goods are either intrinsically good in and of themselves (intrinsic good) or because they lead to the realization of other good (instrumentally good). Human beings are created goods in Wieman’ terms. Mutually supportive human communities are created goods. Ecosystems are created goods. Even planet Earth is a created good. Those who want to save a species are trying to save a created good. Those who are concerned about the future of humanity are concerned about a created good.
Yet, there is something more important that either intrinsic or instrumental good—the creativity that has produced these kinds of good. Creativity is embodied in interactions among humans, between humans and the rest of the natural world, and in the natural world itself. Creative interaction takes place among already created goods, but in a way that allows for the emergence of new good rather than maintaining created goods in their existing forms (Peters 1993, 205-07). Because the creative process is the continuing source of all human good, it is according to Wieman the ultimate good—the sacred or God.
Even though one can argue philosophically that creativity is more fundamental than what has been created, there still is the problem of emotional attachment to what has been created for two reasons. First, we know well that which has been created—spouse, children, home, car, town, business, the current economic system, and so on. Second, these have become part of our identity. The thought of radically changing who we are in order to become part of an ecological civilization, can generate a sense of loss that manifests itself in grief. This expands the Epicurean idea about the fear of our own physical death. What we also fear is the death of those things that shape who we are—acquiring more material possessions in a consumerist lifestyle, power as the leader of a business that exploits the planet to make a profit for stockholders, a religion that assures us that God will take care of everything, or an already created set of ideas as to what an ecological civilization might be. All these—lifestyle, power, religion, ideas about the future—are created goods. Because they help define who we are in ways that are familiar to and comfortable for us, we fear their loss. We grieve at the thought of their needing to be re-formed in a process of transformation that is leading to a future that cannot now be fully known.


One reason why created goods cannot demand our total commitment is that they change. As the Buddha taught, all things are transient. The only thing permanent is change itself. Following Wieman, we can construct a structure to this change. One aspect of the structure involves processes among existing parts of the world that give rise to the new; another involves processes that integrate the new with the old—with both old and new undergoing transformation. In one of his last books, Religious Inquiry, Wieman calls this two-aspect process “creative interchange.” One way Wieman characterizes creative interchange is a dual process of love and wisdom. Wisdom
is the search for coherence in the development of the individual, in social development and in knowledge. Love is the desire to bring into each of these forms of coherence the innovations relevant to each kind of development. Development means expanding the range and coherence of what can be known, controlled, and valued by the individual in community with others. In this sense wisdom and love are necessary to the development of the individual, necessary to the development of viable social relations, necessary to the development of knowledge, of culture, and of the continuity of history. . . .
The systematic order, insofar as it is attained, is always open-ended. This method of seeking coherence is wisdom; where love seeks to bring into the order thus achieved other ideas, values, persons, cultures, and social developments (Wieman 1968, 124).
Today a significant question is whether reaching out in love can bring into our current social order the values of non-humans, ecosystems, and the planet itself and whether we can then integrate these values into a new coherence (new wisdom) of a planetary ecological era. A new ecological age will be an age in which humans increasingly come to love all things, seeking ever new wisdom of dynamic coherences that mutually contribute to the good of all humans and the rest of the world—an ecological civilization. Humans need to become converted from commitments to created goods for themselves to an ultimate commitment to creativity that brings new patterns of living for the good of all.


Babiak, Paul; Hare, Robert D. 2009. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Copley, Frank O. 1977. “Introduction” to Lucretius, The Nature of Things. New York: Norton. Kindle Edition, 2011.
Johnson, Mark H., Richard Griffin, Gergely Csibra, Hanife Halit, Teresa Farroni, Michele De Haan, Leslie A. Tucker, Simon Baron-Cohen, John Richards. 2005. “The Emergence of the Social Brain Network: Evidence from Typical and Atypical Development.” Development and Psychopathology 17/3 (July): 599-619. Accessed 5/25/2015.
Lucretius. 1977. The Nature of Things. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Frank O. Copley. New York: W.W. Norton. Kindle Edition, 2011.
Peters, Karl E. 1993. “Pragmatically Defining the God Concepts of Henry Nelson Wieman and Gordon Kaufman.” In New Essays in Religious Naturalism, Highlands Institute, Vol. II, ed.
Larry Axel and Creighton Peden. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, pp. 199-210.
Shoemaker, William J. 2012. “The Social Brain Network and Human Moral Behavior.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. 47/4 (December) 806-820. DOI: 10.1111/j. 1467-9744.2012.01295.x. Accessed 5/25/2015
Schouten, Ronald and James Silver. 2012. Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? Center City, MN: Hazelden
Wieman, Henry Nelson. 1966. Religious Inquiry. Beacon Press.

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